Ask a Librarian: New Library Director Advice?

An old one from the inbox about starting as a new, youngish library director in an established library.

Here are some quick links and things to think about:

1. How to manage smart people.
http://www.scottberkun.com/essays/28-how-to-manage-smart-people/

If your staff is smart, they mostly need you just to help them with resources and support to help THEM be awesome and don’t need a lot of top-down guidance. If they’re not as smart, you have a different set of issues.

2. Know the work.

list of rural library director's jobs

A friend make this list. You’ll have to view this large but it points out all the different parts that go into library directorship in a smaller place and even though all those jobs aren’t going to be yours, many of them will be SOMEONE’s

3. Outreach.

I think the biggest thing that libraries do is they sort of hang their OPEN sign out and wait for people to come in. That doesn’t help or affect the people who aren’t coming in. Reaching everyone or as many people as possible in your service area is mission critical, to me, they spend money on the library so how do you help them. Populations that often get ignored are

  • the elderly who may have mobility/cognitive impairment
  • prisoners
  • teenagers (people think they’re annoying, want them to come back
    when they’re less annoying)
  • the disabled who may need accommodation
  • the computer illiterate

Basic improvements in signage, accessibility, staff training (for friendliness, usefulness, etc) can go a long way towards helping ALL these sorts of people without sort of unhelping other people at the same time. I really think every library needs to take a good look at their website, OPAC and other tech services to see if what they do is working for the patron, not just the staff. I mean you have to make the staff happy too, but reworking so that you’re visibly helping the patron is also good for funding and general satisfaction levels.

4. Eating your own dog food.

Make sure you’ve done a Work Like a Patron Day yourself and,at some appropriate point, for your staff.

librarian diplomacy

rich Little gives a talk about Lizzie Borden

I am, like many librarians, sort of a crabby nitpicker about some things. I think there are optimal ways to do things, particularly with technology. I have, over the past 20+ years of helping people, gotten better at working with people to reach their own good place with how they want technology to work for them. I only talk “optimizing” if someone asks. They rarely ask. This is fine. Working on my anxiety levels has also helped with this somewhat.

I visit libraries like it is my job. I always like a nice public place where I can sit and read or work among other people and not have to buy anything. I like getting ideas by looking at hundreds of books or flipping through magazines. Last night I was at the Tiverton Public Library which is just a few miles from my dad’s place in Massachusetts. They were having a speaker talk about Lizzie Borden. Fun! I found it via the Facebook “events near me” feature which I have never tried before since IN Vermont you usually get … nothing.

The author, Rich Little (above), a math teacher at a local community college, had written a book called Cold Case to Case Closed, Lizbeth Borden, My Story. Fall River is right up the road and the place was PACKED with people, many of whom had a lot of knowledge about the case, some of which conflicted with the speaker’s. It was an entertaining 90 minutes learning more about the Bordens and about Fall River at that time.

Mister Little used large blown-up images of the key players and I immediately thought “Uh oh, no slides?” but it turned out it worked pretty well in the packed room and we could all focus more on what he was saying. He was even pretty deft in dealing with the people in the audience who were pretty set against his interpretation of events (which seemed to be the vibe I got from the Lizzie Borden Society members reviews). I was pleased that I’d overcome my initial concerns to enjoy this great library program.

One weird part, however, was RSVPing for the event. They asked you to call and RSVP. Not usually my communication preference but okay. I left my name, spelling it, and phone number with the library. When I arrived that evening the entire list of names and numbers (with mine written JAZMYN WEST) was on a clipboard in the front lobby on an unstaffed table. While I am pretty good at my “this is a thing on which reasonable people disagree” stance, I think this is a library privacy gaffe. At the same time, I don’t want my only feedback on this otherwise superb event to be “I felt weird that you left my phone number out in public.” so I decided to write all of this out.

2016 in libraries

pie chart of libraries I've visited

I’m a firm believer of eating your own dog food. Meaning if you say stuff about libraries (and I do), then make sure you go to them as if going to them was your JOB (and I do). Don’t just go to the one library where your job is, though that helps.

Every year I make a list. Every year I reflect on that list. This year I went to forty-five libraries in nine states and one non-US country. Eighty-six library visits total. Many more different libraries than last year, but just a few more visits overall. With all this, I only added two new libraries to my Vermont 183 project even as I hand out awards to people who have been to over 190 libraries in Vermont!

Seven years in a row I’ve been keeping this up. Previous years: 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and some reviews from 2003

Libraries I went to more than once include.

  • Kimball (VT) – my local and one of the best libraries in my opinion.
  • Hartness (VT) – my local academic, bigger collection and longer hours but further away
  • Westport (MA) – my summer local, don’t love it but do use it
  • Tiverton (RI) – the library in the summer that I go to more often even if I can’t check out books
  • Carney/Dartmouth (MA) – local academic, another great library, well-loved, well-used
  • Harvard Law Library (MA) – where my fellowship is and where I can go work
  • New Bedford (MA) – used to be a museum, I take guests here
  • Hookset (NH) – here for work, twice, always enjoy it

Libraries I only went to once

  • Gutman (Harvard) – part of an attempt to go to all Harvard’s libraries
  • Winooski (VT) – doing some Passport work here
  • Oak Lawn IL – stopped & checked email on our #WestOn20 trip
  • Library of Congress (DC) – always a favorite
  • Stowe Free (VT) – participated in a panel for their anniversary
  • Newton (MA) – stopped to chill after a long ALA week
  • URI/Carrothers (RI) – gave a talk, visited friends
  • Claremont/Berkeley (CA) – hid out avoiding a kid birthday party
  • Southworth/Dartmouth (MA) – great place to work, lovely art
  • British Library (UK) – got to take my sister to this great place
  • VT Law Library – MontP (VT) – a farewell to a colleague
  • Lamont (Harvard) – so stoked to finally get in here!
  • Aldrich/Barre (VT) – visiting a friend doing some visioning
  • Belchertown (MA) – what a gem! stopped by on the way home from friends’
  • MIT/Hayden (MA) – what a treat after Harvard’s closed system
  • Ames/Easton (MA) – stopped in before a wedding next door
  • Former War Library (DC) – this is basically IN THE WHITE HOUSE, omg
  • Harold Johnson Library, Hampshire (MA) – my alma mater
  • Montpelier (VT) – stopping in before seeing a friend
  • Goddard (VT) – was on the radio!
  • Brown/Northfield (VT) – passport wrap-up
  • Cambridge/Central Branch (MA) – can’t even remember this visit but I am sure I liked it
  • Boston Public (MA) – saw my friend Tom, got a cool tour
  • Schlesinger/Harvard – saw my friend Jen, got a cool tour
  • Lewisham (UK) – a great neighborhood library
  • Watson Retreat Center (NY) – a funky special library
  • Internet Archive (CA) – they say they are a library, so they are
  • Girard (PA) – a round library, part of #WestOn20
  • Caird Library (UK) – at the Naitonal Maritime Museum, not as friendly as I’d hoped
  • Howe/Hanover (NH) – always a favorite
  • MLK Branch (DC) – saw movies about black history and drank it in
  • Weissman/Harvard – a rare open house, I was not allowed to take photos
  • Cazenovia (NY) – a mummy!
  • Manor House (UK) – a library having hard times but doing ok
  • Fairfield/Millicent (MA) – another great library to take friends to
  • BU (MA) – gave a talk, stuck around to see the basement
  • Pollard/Lowell – a great old classic library

I’ve had an average of 80-ish visits per year for a few years now so I think that is my new normal. So a library every five days. A new library every eight days. Maybe when I hit ten years I’ll do a decade long wrap up. I wish this data was all in standard form….

I am very thankful my work takes me to all of these lovely places. Thanks to the librarians who graciously showed me around.

Idea for now: Library Freedom Playbook

(note: this idea is not mine, I am merely running with it after it was mentioned on a mailing list I am on)

riki tiki tavi illustration

In these weird times where people are very unsure who to trust and even less sure how to feel about the government, the Library Freedom Playbook should exist and doesn’t. We have a few directions where we should be highlighting the important role of libraries.

1. The library is authoritative
2. The library is safe
3. The library is also the government

The last message is tricky. Many if not most public libraries are municipal organizations. The library is for everyone in the good ways that government is supposed to be but increasingly is not. Blind hatred/fear of government can keep people from getting services they deserve. We need a nuanced message here. I am aware this is not simple.

It’s important to get things ranging from EFFs advice which is useful but not always practical for an average person, to stuff like “Hey print this zine and give it to kids!”

Things like Tor are a huge deal for libraries because the libraries can do the work one time but ALL the patrons benefit. Raising awareness for libraries why this is useful is part of it (like Library Freedom Project). Giving talks that outline practical approachable solutions that aren’t overwhelming. Building plug-ins for common software like Chrome, WordPress, Firefox and common ILSes.

I remember when there was some weird post-9/11 concerns about certain publications from govdocs organizations being possibly “dangerous” and tried to recall them and then-head of Boston Public Library Bernie Margolis basically “letter of the law” complied (took them out of govdocs) but “spirit of the law” did not (put them in circulating collections). That highlights what high profile librarian actions can also
do for morale in addition to access, both of which are important parts of this.